The above quote is perhaps the most counter-intuitive thing ever said by Christ – as far as general human experience goes. We do not want to lose our lives – despite the presence of suicides (an entirely different discussion). The instinct for self-preservation is among the deepest drives in the human psyche. It is also, to a large extent, among the greatest problems of our disordered existence. Within the stories of the Desert Fathers we find examples of those who have followed Christ’s commandment and offered insight to others:
A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, “Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.” So the old man said, “Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.” The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, “Didn’t they say anything to you?” He replied, “No.” The old man said, “Go back tomorrow and praise them.” So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, “Apostles, saints, and righteous men.” He returned to the old man who said to him, “Did they not answer you?” The brother said, “No.” The old man said to him, “You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too, if you wish to be saved, must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.”
Abbot Moses said: A man ought to be like a dead man with his companions, for to die to one’s friend is to cease to judge him in anything.
Such dying to “self” is difficult in the extreme. It is helpful to know that the “self” to which we are asked to die is not, in fact, our true self, but the illusion created by our fears, opinions, judgments and other such things. As St. Paul would say:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).
The “self” which is crucified with Christ is the “I” who no longer lives. And the “I” which now lives is the true self, the “me” who lives by virtue of relation with Christ.
Often the difficulty with all this is that we have almost no experience or confidence in that “true self.” Thus our Christian journey consists in the constant effort and failure to reform the “self who no longer lives.” The truth is that it is an identity which never had true existence. The writings of the fathers, particularly those writings on asceticism and prayer of the heart, are full of discussion and teaching on this distinction and the spiritual battle that it entails.
In contemporary writings, I have found some thoughts by Archimandrite Meletios Webber to be most helpful. Of the ego, or false self, he states:
In order to be right about anything, the mind [the central organ of the false self] has the need to find someone or something that is wrong. In a sense, the mind is always looking for an enemy (the person who is “wrong”), since without an enemy, the mind is not quite sure of its own identity. When it has an enemy, it is able to be more confident about itself. Since the mind also continually seeks for certainty, which is a by-product of the desire to be right, the process of finding and defining enemies is an ongoing struggle for survival. Declaring enemies is, for the mind, not an unfortunate character flaw, but an essential and necessary task.
Unfortunately, being right is not what people really need, even though a great deal of their lives may be taken up in its pursuit. Defense of the ego is almost always a matter of trying to be right. Interestingly enough, Jesus never once suggested to His disciples that they be right. What He did demand is that they be righteous. In listening to His words we find that we spend almost all our energy in the wrong direction, since we generally pursue being right with every ounce of our being, but leave being good to the weak and the naive.
People fight wars, commit genocide, and deprive others of basic human civil liberties, all in the name of being right. There is little doubt that if a further nuclear war ever takes place, it will be because the person pushing the button believes himself to be right. About something…..
The heart [the primary organ of the true self] is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling. Rather, it begins with an awareness of its relationship with the rest of creation (and everything and everyone in it), accepting rather than rejecting, finding similarity rather than alienation and likeness rather than difference. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding. Little wonder, then, that the mind, always impatient and very demanding, manages to dominate it so thoroughly.
Quotes are from Archimandrite Meletios’ Bread and Water, Wine and Oil.
This draws out some of the parameters of our daily struggle. The true self is not a product of our own efforts – we cannot re-create ourselves. Nevertheless, we can be honest and recognize the nature of our noisy minds, our anxieties and fears, our regrets. Domination and desire, justification and defense are all part of the life of the false self – who is passing away.
These are all matters that, by God’s grace, we can resist and can bring into the light of confession and God’s compassion. In the same manner, by God’s grace, we can struggle to be quiet and to live in the present moment (without anxiety or regret). We can renounce our need to dominate and justify ourselves.
These are the difficult daily tasks of our struggle. We should not think that the work of the false self (or selves) will ever accomplish the work of the Kingdom. That glory is the gift of God which we may enter with thanksgiving. God help us.